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Lesson 1.2

International Context:
Are U.S. Schools Behind the World?

How do you make America’s future better? You already know.

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California's students score below their peers in other states. But how does the U.S. education system perform in comparison to other countries?

America's results on international tests are ordinary

Two major tests compare the learning of students around the world. According to both of them, American students are not at the head of the class.

Every three years, PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) tests a sample of 15-year-old students in over 70 countries in reading literacy, science and math. (In case you are wondering, "PISA" is pronounced like the name of the leaning tower.) In 2018, among the 35 major developed countries participating, American students scored about average in science and reading and below average in math. (The pandemic interrupted administration of the test; an update is expected after 2023.)

Are America's lackluster results new? Well, no. The US education system has trailed those of the PISA leaders for a long time. Many of the countries that tend to rock the test are in Asia. The US also routinely scores lower than Canada, Australia, the UK and Germany.

Is the PISA test accurate? Does it display a complete picture of student comprehension in reading literacy, math, and science? Another international test, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), corroborates the findings.

How are TIMSS and PISA different? Glad you asked. Broadly, PISA emphasizes skills by asking students questions that require specific competencies. TIMSS, by contrast, emphasizes knowledge by asking questions that probe what students know. Even so, rankings based on these tests tend to align more than they differ.

How important are the PISA and TIMSS tests?

All over the world, brilliant people are working to make their schools great. By comparing school systems, researchers hope to find useful differences. Here are some major findings:

Key education strategies in countries with leading schools
Strategy Implication
A clear strategy to improve performance and equity. Great school systems do not happen by chance
Rigorous and consistent standards across all classrooms. This is what Common Core strives to provide.
High-quality teachers and school leaders. Make the teaching profession attractive and selective. Provide ongoing support to help staff collaborate and improve.
Distribute funding in a way that provides more to schools and students that need it the most. Access to early education, after-school tutoring, counseling, and health services all make a difference for students.
Emphasize help for at-risk students and schools. This includes immigrants, students living in poverty, and children with disabilities.

For a deeper dive into international comparisons of education systems, read What America Can Learn about Smart Schools in Other Countries by Amanda Ripley.

Not everyone agrees about the importance of PISA scores. Among the skeptics is Diane Ravitch, an education activist and historian:

The more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer... International test scores don’t matter, except to tell us that if we really wanted to raise them, we would reduce poverty."

Some policy experts such as Martin Carnoy of the Stanford Graduate School of Education argue that comparisons among states are more relevant than comparisons with other countries. (This argument should provide no comfort to Californians, as discussed in Ed100 Lesson 1.1.)

Want to improve America’s future economy? Make education work better, for lots of kids.

There's nothing wrong with kids in other countries doing well in school, of course. Education benefits everyone, not just Americans. But the scores are not just of theoretical interest.

Education drives economic growth

Educational achievement drives economic growth, and the PISA test has played an important role in proving it. In a 2010 study of educational attainment and national growth rates, revised and reinforced in 2015 under the title Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain, Stanford professor Eric Hanushek and colleagues found that educational success in a country (as measured by the PISA exam) powerfully predicts future economic growth.

The implication is clear: Want to make America's future economy better? Make education work better, for lots of kids. If an investment enables kids to learn more successfully, in a way that can be confirmed by scores on the PISA exam, this analysis suggests that it makes sense to invest boldly. Investment in education can eventually pay for itself many times over, as professors Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann write, “The overwhelming conclusion is that the magnitude of the impact of knowledge capital on growth appears to be so large that nations cannot afford to neglect the quality of their schools. Doing so would impair their economic future.”

Students in developing nations are learning, too

Education systems are improving all over the world. When it comes to educational opportunities, the world is converging.

America’s universities are a source of economic strength, and they attract talent from all over the world. But they are far smaller than the universities in China and India. China's universities already educate far more students than America's do and consequently, China produces more college graduates. As the college-going population continues to expand in China and India, pressures are mounting for those countries to develop research universities of global caliber. In the long run, America’s leadership in excellent quality higher education is certain to face increasing competition.

China and India both educate far more students than America does at every level - including college.

In a knowledge economy, top talent drives growth. America’s unique position as the global center for higher education is not fated to last forever. Growing numbers of America’s best and brightest will choose to attend research universities in China and India, in addition to the other way around.

The next lesson examines the cause of the strong connection between successful education and a successful economy. The nature of work has changed.

Recent update:
August 2021
July 2022.


True or False: America has more college graduates than any other nation in the world.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
codo August 23, 2018 at 8:55 am
Minor comment: the link attached to "The Alliance for Excellent Education" (under the cliff notes) leads to, rather than
user avatar
Caryn August 23, 2018 at 11:12 am
Hi codo, Thanks for the catch. It may seem minor to you but it's definitely major to us :) We love it when our readers help keep Ed100 accurate. Keep up the good work!
user avatar
Birdstomper May 4, 2018 at 4:57 pm
There are some interesting books listed in this thread that I plan to seek out. Thanks for all the great insight!
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 3:10 am
Does USA require all children to go to school? Is it the same in all countries? What percent of USA children are educated at school? What percent go to school in the other countries?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm
Education policy is set by states. Eduction is compulsory in all US states, as it is in virtually all developed nations. Have a look at our lesson on the history of education (Lesson 1.7) for more about how public education evolved from a privilege of the few to a universal good. The OECD reports are fairly good for information comparing education systems among developed countries. In developing nations the conditions of education can be more variable. The World Bank is a credible source, and its data are well-presented here:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 11:53 am
The 2015 PISA test of collaborative problem solving shows that students with stronger science, reading or math skills tend to be better at problem solving. Top performing countries include Japan, Korea and Singapore in Asia, Estonia and Finland in Europe and Canada in North America. The US came out 13th out of 52 countries/economies participating-- with higher scores on collaborative work than on individual subjects. The US ranked 39th in math.
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Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 2:16 pm
At-risk students in the US are literally years behind the most at-risk students in the world's best education systems, according to the PISA 2015 science tests.

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Lisette October 3, 2017 at 12:20 pm
For sure the U.S. is behind. I came from South America in the fourth grade and found I was much more advanced in my learnings than my California peers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 4:32 pm
"Empowered Educators" takes a look at how high performing systems shape teaching quality around the world. These countries focus on building effective systems and make
a commitment to professionalizing teaching. The research looks at recruitment, preparation and induction, professional work environments, and elevating the status of teaching.

Read the full report: Empowered Educators
user avatar
Meilani Hendrawidjaja May 8, 2017 at 12:36 pm
Is there any study on how well US college students compared to students from other countries?
user avatar
May 3, 2017 at 11:19 am
American Higher Education is too costly.
School standard should be more uniform.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 12, 2017 at 10:32 am
PISA test scores show evidence of a connection between early education and later student achievement, taking economic factors into account. Bad news for California, where many children don't have access to preschool!
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 11, 2017 at 3:54 pm
Great Q&A with the head of the PISA program, framed as discussion of "myths" Among the interesting bits: "In the last PISA in 2012, the 10 percent most disadvantaged students in Shanghai reached similar math scores to the 10 percent most privileged American fifteen-year-olds."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm
While America as a whole does not have outstanding scores on the PISA exams, one state is doing really well: Massachusetts. This article from Education Week highlights this success.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:20 pm
An interesting perspective from an American teacher in China.
"Why China Isn't Winning: American Higher Ed Is Still Much, Much Better" A major factor says David Lundquist in the Atlantic is America's extracurricular advantage. "A narrow concept of learning is prioritized over wider notions of personal growth common to many Americans."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 8, 2016 at 11:32 pm
Is American education "efficient" relative to education in other places in the world? Asked differently, where in the world are taxpayers getting the best results for the money they put into their education systems? In an important and detailed new report, Rutgers researchers Bruce Baker and Mark Weber do two things: (1) First, they bust the premise of the question. School systems, data systems, benefits systems, and measurements of poverty vary so massively among nations and states that drawing meaningful conclusions is radically difficult. (2) Second, using some decent datasets including PISA test scores they tease out patterns that suggest education spending and test results in America are probably more or less in line with the rest of the world. Those who say America gets a bad deal for its education dollar are probably wrong.
user avatar
krishnaniyer June 5, 2016 at 1:54 pm
The way I see it, global education trends are at crossing each other, almost handing over batons of education models to each other. While the BRIC countries are moving away from their "tests" based model and embracing open ideas that encourage critical thinking, we here are moving away from what was our bread and butter and starting to embrace a more rigorous test based model - case in point: The common core that is was implemented widely this year.
user avatar
krishnaniyer June 5, 2016 at 1:51 pm
If honestly this 4th and 8th grade measuring tests are the only indicators, then how would folks here would explain the emergence of almost all the new generation game changers (iPhone, Google, Electric Cars, Space Technologies - please don't ignore Facebook either) are from America and not from elsewhere? I've serious doubts
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dgaarhus February 21, 2016 at 10:30 pm
Having worked in the international school system (over 8000 schools, 4.26 million students), I can speak on the testing and curricular experiences I encountered in Asia and Europe. Students are students, all over the world. They begin with a deep desire to learn, and "figure out" the world they live in. The real changes begin in the approach that is taken: (1) Importance placed on education by society, (2) Gender equality & expectations, (3) Teacher preparation & continued professional development opportunities, (4) Curricular needs/expectations, and (5) Approaches to testing (from a young age). Each of these plays a significant role in how a child proceeds in their educational journey.
Dr.Deborah Aarhus, Ed.D.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 8, 2015 at 4:06 pm
Martin Carnoy and others argue in this paper that comparisons of US school results with international school results is too fraught to be useful. Because education systems vary so greatly between countries, they argue that education innovation is better guided by insights from within the US than from beyond it. If you must, the whole analysis is here:
user avatar
Pamela Luk November 5, 2015 at 2:40 pm
It's interesting. Many Asian countries -- including China -- are exploring moving away from the education model they currently use to try and bring in elements of Western/American education. Why? Because, the US has many more innovators, patent holders, and entrepreneurs.
And now the US has gotten wrapped in worrying more about test scores and not allowing teachers to assess and assist their students as they see fit and in a create manner. Anyone interested in this topic might want to check out the book "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?" by Yong Zhao. It's next on my reading list.
user avatar
rxc2674 September 26, 2015 at 10:33 pm
I think it is important to see how we as a country compare to other countries. We can learn from each other what are they doing that helps improve performance, but at the same time lets make sure we see the whole picture. Education in China is limited to only some and the pressure to perform is stressful on many young people. We do need to make improvements in our educational system, but the reason that many people from around the world come to the U.S. is to give their child an education that may not be obtainable in their own country.
user avatar
Jenny N September 22, 2015 at 3:33 pm
Is there a lesson or resource that talks about what these countries are doing differently? If they're putting more money toward education funding, where is it going? Do the kids spend more time in the classroom? Have more parent involvement? Are they taught with philosophies that differ from ours?
user avatar
arienneadamcikova April 20, 2015 at 10:09 pm
Somehow Americans continue to buy into the belief that our public schools are doing terribly ever since we were in a Cold War with Russia. As it turns out, we ”won" that Cold War in the "race" to space. The bigger problems of our middle class disappearing have nothing to do with the quality of our education - I have had students from all over the world in my classes who love the amount of time, effort and care given to students by American teachers. Income inequality is due to the economic manipulations of the ruling class, and not to an inferior education. And my Chinese students are much happier learners than they would be in China. Professor Yong Zhai, mentioned on this page, discusses how China is learning educational practices from American educators, with reason. We should not give up our ideals of a progressive holistic education because we are worried about a global "competition" for economic supremacy. No one "wins" with that type of thinking.
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jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:24 am
Oh and to support I have to agree. Why is it that even third world countries teach second languages starting at the preschool level and yet in CA we require only 2 years during high school?! How many people can learn a second language in 2 years and also have to pay to do so? Language acquisition takes more than that and should be required in order to provide options to those students for future career choices. Our son wanted to take ASL and we were adamant that given his career goals, Mandarin would be a better option. Of course, his teacher provides little challenge. After two semesters all he can say is "How are you doing today?" Really? That's IT! Yet he has an A+ in class. Brilliant. I'm so glad he is required to take a language course so he has one simple sentence to say to someone if he goes to China.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 3:52 pm
Additional information on how schools approach language education is available in Lesson 6.16 ("How not to raise ugly Americans")
user avatar
hetds June 13, 2015 at 2:01 pm
CA Senator Lara proposes a ballot measure to provide multilingual education for ALL CALIFORNIA'S

Long overdue!
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 21, 2015 at 12:41 am
Language education is discussed in Lesson 6.16.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 6:18 am
“The more we focus on tests,” she argues, “the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores.”
Interesting quote. My son is autistic and is brilliant. However, he can't pass a standardized test. No. Matter. What. But he has straight A's in all classes. He can build a computer in a couple of hours. Why are we still doing standardized testing? The answer is so that we have a report card showing how well we are doing as a whole, not how intelligent or innovative each individual is. Portfolios would be a better measure of what a student has gained. I go above and beyond telling my kids not to worry about scores. That is a poor measure of what they are capable of in the real world.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder February 27, 2015 at 3:49 pm
Thanks, Jenzteam. More information about testing is available in Lesson 6.5, and you might also be interested in adding your perspective to Lesson 2.7, with information about how the system addresses special needs.
user avatar
Marcia Jarmel March 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm
Here's a resource for ideas about what IS working in California public schools--a PBS film about kids becoming bilingual and biliterate in CA language immersion schools. The benefits from being bilingual from a young age are multiple--brain development, academic achievement, and more. And this model can turn the perceived deficit new immigrants bring into the classroom into an asset. Of course its not a panacea, but I invite you to check it out: Our website is full of research links, short videos on specific issues related to bilingualism, links, case studies, etc.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:11 am
Where's the like button?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 22, 2015 at 9:39 pm
Glad to hear you like it, Sherry! Please help us spread the word!
user avatar
lildeb1971 February 7, 2015 at 8:52 pm
Watching a screening of your film helped prompt my husband and I to join other interested parents in approaching our school district to approve a Mandarin Immersion Program for elementary, which they did in 2011! However, it was only approved with the condition that it be cost-neutral to the district. Basically, they would pay for a teacher and classroom. There is a lot of funding that goes into a program foreign language acquisition! Thus we pay a lot out of pocket for teacher training, materials, library books, program support and technology -- all the Mandarin stuff. My point is that it has been our experience that public schools embrace the concept but simply don't have the resources to support biligual, biliterate programs outside the Title III schools that receive state monies.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 21, 2015 at 12:15 am
David, thanks for the suggestion about approaching Chinese and Taiwanese institutions for support in access to Chinese language learning materials. The written language is different in Taiwan (traditional) than in the mainland (simplified). The topic of language learning is explored in Lesson 6.16. (Our search feature helps identify lessons of interest.)
user avatar
hanushek March 2, 2011 at 11:25 am
The story of how California ranks internationally is even bleaker than the national U.S. statistics show. Recently Paul Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, and I looked at how many students were achieving at the advanced level in mathematics. We compared the U.S. to the world, and we compared each state. (These states rely on the 2006 OECD results, but, as noted, not much changed in 2009.
The U.S. as a whole was outperformed by 30 countries, and was statistically indistinguishable from Russia. But California is another story. California schools are comparable to Israel, Italy, Portugal, and Turkey. (We did just nudge out Greece, the other economic basket case of Europe).
But, as the excuses go, doesn’t California face more educational challenges because of its large minority and immigrant populations? To look at this, we compared the proportion of advanced math performance for California students with a college educated parent to the average student in other countries (without regard to family education). Surely this elite group of California students would look better. And it does. There are only 17 countries who, as a whole, outperform California kids from college educated families. We now look as good as Estonia, Iceland, Slovakia, and some of the larger European countries such as France and the U.K. But remember, this is our best against their average.
California has been the engine of innovation for the U.S. Silicon Valley is known around the world. But, if that innovation continues in the future, it is likely to be done with imported labor from other states and other countries.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 21, 2015 at 12:23 am
Hi, David -- Language learning is addressed in Lesson 6.16. I share your enthusiasm for the topic!
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